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Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Limits of Empathy

Yesterday was my day off. I ran some errands, and I heard about a potential setback. I stopped to talk with Lawrence and told him about my frustrations about a certain business transaction, and  then I went out to run more errands.  Lawrence told me at the end of the day that after I left, Bow was really upset about the conversation he overheard about the business problem. He just would not go back to playing for a long time, and Lawrence had trouble distracting him.

Finally, Bow took Lawrence's hand and spelled: "Mommy is hurt."

Lawrence told him: "Momma is not hurt. Momma is mad!" After which, Bow calmed down and went back to his usual preoccupations: food, grooming, going outside.

Yes, I get angry sometimes. And yes, Bow would rather see me angry than hurt. If I'm angry then there is still a fighting chance. If I am hurt, it means we have suffered a loss. If I lose, Bow loses.

 I know a lot of people who are trying to control their expressions every moment of the day, to convince themselves and others that they only ever have positive feelings: happiness, joy, sympathy, fellowship, friendship. They try to avoid anger, fear, sadness and boredom. They don't actually avoid having those feelings. They just disguise them -- sometimes even from themselves.

Bow, showing affection

Chimpanzees are very good at picking up on other people's feelings. It's one of the things that distinguishes them from us. They see right past any attempts to disguise who you really are and what you really feel.

Does Bow have empathy for me? Sure. But it's got to do with the fact that we are on the same team. If something bad happens to me, then that means that his interests are jeopardized, too. And even though he does not understand the exact nature of every business transaction, he has a very clear gut feeling about when something is "for us" or "against us."

Believe it or not, that's actually what empathy is for. It's not so we'll stop to help our enemies when they are wounded on the field of battle or so that we will adopt that baby from the tribe that is making war on us, or so that we will give something we need away to a stranger because he needs it more. Sometimes empathy does work that way, but that's not how it evolved and that is not its main function. It evolved to help us figure out what is in our own best interest, even when we are not the one directly hurt or threatened.

There's been an article about the benefits of reading that has been going the rounds, and many pro-literacy advocates are touting it as very significant: it claims that people who read a lot are better at understanding other people's feelings. It claims that reading develops empathy. And the more literary the book, the greater the empathy.

I think that is patently false. All my life, I have observed that people with their nose in a book most of the day are less alert to the feelings of others, which may be why they get bullied so often. The ability to read others in my experience is inversely proportional to the amount of reading we have done. People who read literary fiction are more likely to be so out of touch with their own feelings that they don't even know when they themselves are angry, much less somebody else. And yes, there was a political bias in the article, because it mentioned that people who read literary fiction are the most sympathetic to the downtrodden and excluded groups. In other words, there was an implication that empathy is a tool to achieve a particular political result.

Perspective shifting is an important mental exercise. Our ability to shift perspective grows as we become more intelligent, more capable of abstraction and less immediately engaged by direct experience,  and it is better developed in  science fiction than in mainstream literature. In order to really shift perspective, though, you need to be able to momentarily disengage your feelings.  But even though you shift your perspective to identify with an alien race or a different culture, at the end of the day, your actual empathy is reserved for the people on your team. Just like Bow's.

Japanese Beetles attacking my peach trees

Sometimes it's not even about right or wrong or good or bad. It's just about them or us. Take those Japanese beetles that I have seen around lately. One can identify with their desire to find a mate and be fruitful and multiply. But when they are attacking my peach trees in their multitudes, my empathy lessens. I am determined to thwart their very understandable and natural desires.

The greatest discord in this world does not come from a lack of mutual understanding. Its source is conflict of interest. If anybody is trying to convince you otherwise, he probably has something he hopes to gain. Take care!


  1. I agree with you about reading and empathy. Sounds like another clever ploy at social engineering. I have read this post twice and after thinking about it, I agree with why we have empathy for some and not for others. And "our team" can be far-reaching and situation dependent - political, gender specific at times, family oriented, or many others, I'm sure.
    As a side note, I find it very cool that Bow has empathy for you when he perceives you are hurt.

    1. Hi, Kathy. The team is definitely a very elastic concept, so what exactly it consists of varies a lot. I think this variability is what gives some people the idea that everybody in the entire universe can be on the same team all at the same time. But it does not quite work that way, for obvious reasons.

      Yes, it is cool that Bow has empathy for me when he sees me as hurt. I like knowing he is on my team!

  2. Insects are always attacking plants. It annoys me, but I realize I am limited in what I can do about it. I cannot spend my entire existence fretting about it, etc.

    1. I usually don't worry about insects, either, Julia. Some, like the black garden ants, I find to be beneficial. But if they kill my peach trees, that is a different matter. Did you see how many there were in that one infestation?